A Most Violent Year, the striking feature from up-and-coming writer-director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call, All is Lost), is an astounding achievement. From the performances (Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, David Oyewolo), the intensely layered plotting, and the fantastically subtle screenplay, it is in every way superior. Set in New York, 1981, the time, date and location, in captions, are the first things seen on screen. Beyond this, the film is conspicuously absent of any dating, as no pop culture or even news from the time receives any mention in this insular, personal story.
It would only be possible to tell such a personal story with an extremely gifted actor in the lead, which this film has in Oscar Isaac (Drive, Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina). In an early scene Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), giving his newest sales reps a pep talk before they head out for the first calls, says “You will never do anything as hard as looking someone straight in the eye, and telling the truth.” While Abel is allowed by his position to believe that this is true, his wife and head accountant Anna (Jessica Chastain), daughter of a reputed New York mobster, knows that things are more complicated than that. With his wife and his attorney (Albert Brooks) telling him from one side that he must deal with the gangsters ripping him off in whatever way he can, Assistant District Attorney Lawrence (David Oyewolo) watching him closely for any malfeasance, and a slate of hijackings crippling his business, Abel must find a way to survive.
But for Abel, it is not enough merely to survive, he must thrive and conquer. This brings us to the core of what A Most Violent year truly is; an immigrant story. In one pivotal scene Anna (Chastain) laughs at her husband for believing that they’ve achieved their opulent lifestyle purely through the sweat of his own brow, when she knows that the truth is far murkier than that. He follows what he refers to as “standard industry practice,” glossing over the fact that these practices include some things (like under-reporting load weights and hiring undocumented workers) that are not technically legal. The film does not dig deep into what specific illegalities Standard Oil (Abel’s Trucking company) perpetrated, preferring instead to load its script with beautifully written and intensely emotional speeches.
I’m so personally enamored with the central performances in A Most Violent Year that they almost overshadow the screenplay, but the screenplay is so precise and well-observed that it shines through as the most exemplary component of the film. When Abel has a meeting at the back of a large seemingly Italian restaurant with the heads of other, presumably larger oil companies in the area, he sits them down and says simply, “stop.” The simple desperation of this conversation is matched by the next scene in which, during a conversation with his college-student nephew, a cadre of girls walk by and Abel simply says “Jesus, I don’t know how you get any work done around here.” This simple spot of humor caused me to laugh out loud, though it is not all that funny, because with this his third film, J.C. Chandor has introduced himself as a master of understated tension, and created what may come to be the greatest film of the decade.